Historical Beginnings: The Indus Valley Civilisation

By National Council of Science Museums

Science City, Kolkata

By the middle of the 3rd millenium BCE, we see a fairly developed urban culture along the Indus and Saraswati rivers in the north west India.  The Indus Valley Civilization has distinct features that cannot be seen anywhere in the ancient world. Here is a tribute to the development of human wisdom of technology in the early part of the world history!

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

The beginning of agrarian settlements in the Indian subcontinent dates back to 7000 BC in the present day Baluchistan in places like Mehrgarh, Kot diji etc. The early Neolithic villages cultivated mainly wheat and barley and domesticated cattle and sheep. Why and how these Neolithic culture turned into a Chalcolithic and subsequently a bronze age civilization is not clearly known; but by the middle of the 3rd millenium BCE, we see a fairly developed urban culture along the Indus and Saraswati rivers in the north west India: now known as the famous Indus Valley Civilization.

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

The civilization is contemporaneous to the Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia and the Egyptian civilization, but with distinct features that cannot be seen anywhere in the ancient world.

Spread across 1.5 million square kilometres between Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea and between Baluchistan and the Yamuna, Indus Valley Civilization was one of the most developed urban civilizations in the world who utilized extensive knowledge of technology in developing their towns: Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan etc.

Explore the Harappa archaeological site in this virtual walkthrough!

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

The most prominent features of the civilization were its town planning...

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

...sewerage systems...

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

...its great granaries for preserving grains (Indus people cultivated variety of crops like wheat, barley, rice, different pulses, musk melons, date palms and most notably cotton – cotton was first cultivated in India and Indus people exported cotton garments to the middle east)...

The archaeological excavations, both at Harappan and Mohenjo-daro have revealed very large structures, which are interpreted to be large food grain storage buildings and are referred to as the Granaries. The presence of these structures do provide a glimpse, howsoever hazy, of the surplus wealth at the disposal of the authority in the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The granaries stood on a core of mud platform. It is a brick structure built on a massive brick foundation over 45 metres north-south and 45 metres east-west. Altogether there were twelve units arranged in blocks of six each. A wooden superstructure supported in some places by large columns would have been built on top of the brick foundations, with stairs leading up from the central passage area. Small triangular opening may have served as air ducts to allow the flow of fresh air beneath the hollow floors.

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

...great bath where bitumen was used for waterproofing...

By Larry BurrowsLIFE Photo Collection

...wheeled carts...

Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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...and Indus seals featuring a yet undeciphered script.

Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Stamp seal: buffalo with incense burner (?), ca. 2600–1900 B.C., From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Stamp seal fragment: unicorn and incense-burner (?), inscription, ca. 2600–1900 B.C., From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Larry Burrows, 1961-04, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Terracotta figurines and vessels were discovered from the Indus Valley sites...

Larry Burrows, 1961-04, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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The invention of the pottery is an important milestone in man’s march towards civilisation. On the basis of radio carbon dating by the French archaeological mission at Mehergarh, the beginning of hand made pottery manufactured in India can be traced to about 5000 BC.

Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Larry Burrows, 1961-04, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Larry Burrows, 1961-04, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Larry Burrows, 1961-04, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Sherd, ca. early to mid-3rd millennium B.C., From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Around 4000 BC, the potter’s wheel would have been introduced. The pottery from ancient India are classified as Black and Red Ware, Harappan, Ochre Coloured, Chalcolithic Painted, Painted Gray Ware, Malwa Ware, Jorwe Ware, Lustrous Red Ware and Northern Black Polished Ware pottery. Each of these has distinguishing characteristics.

Disk stone, 1st century B.C., From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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But more important is the uniform weights and measures system across the Indus Valley: a clear proof of technological advancement (may be for trade, but that was quite natural during that era).

Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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The 'Dancing Girl' from Mohenjo-daro, made in bronze, is one of the oldest and rarest finds from the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is housed in National Museum, New Delhi. It is a stylised depiction of a young lady adorned with jewellery, standing in a 'tribhanga' or relaxed pose. This artifact is evidence that the Indus people knew advanced techniques of metal casting, jewellery designing, and that the society was actively involved in cultural traditions like dancing.

Larry Burrows, 1901, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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Beads are by far the most popular indicators of ornamentation found in the archaeological record of Harappan sites.

Cul Asia India Indus Civilization Mohenjo Daro Harappa, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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There are hundreds and thousands of beads, in a wide array of types & materials, each requiring its own manufacturing technology. The materials used for beads was agate, cernelion, lapis lazuli, shell, terracotta, gold, silver & copper. Bead making is a living craft in the Gulf of Khambhat near the state of Gujarat, even today.

Asia India Indus RiverLIFE Photo Collection

The Indus people traded with the Sumerian civilization: the finding of Indus seals in Mesopotamia and their ideographical similarity with Mesopotamian seals speak clearly of the trade and cultural exchange between these two great civilizations.

Asia India Indus RiverLIFE Photo Collection

The prosperity of the Indus people and their subsequent decline were also perhaps linked to the rise and fall of the Sumerian civilization.

Diorama of Indus Valley CivilisationNational Council of Science Museums

Here is a diorama of the Indus Valley Civilisation, made in the Science & Technology Heritage of India gallery at Science City, Kolkata.

Diorama of Indus Valley CivilisationNational Council of Science Museums

Visitors and students are able to get a visual sense of the ancient civilisation and understand how their ancestors lived.

Diorama of Indus Valley CivilisationNational Council of Science Museums

Unfortunately we do not know much about how the Indus people thought about science, but there is no doubt that they played a key role in the development of human wisdom of technology in the early part of the world history.

Credits: Story

This online exhibition has been curated by Science City, Kolkata, a unit of National Council of Science Museums.

Supporting archival images courtesy respective institutions.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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